Full name: Jorge Alberto Valdano Castellano
Nickname: The Philosopher
Date of birth: 4 October 1955 in Las Parejas, Argentina
Nationality: Argentinian and Spanish
Clubs as a player: 1973-1975: Newell’s Old Boys. 1975-1979: Deportivo Alaves. 1979-1984: Real Zaragoza. 1984-1987: Real Madrid, In total he played 340 matches and scored 118 goals.
Honours as a player: FIFA World Cup™ winner (1986), FIFA World Youth Championship winner (1979), UEFA Cup winner (1985, 1986) and Spanish league title winner (1986, 1987, 1988). 22 caps and 11 goals for Argentina.
Career as a coach: 1992-1994: Club Deportivo Tenerife. 1994-1996: Real Madrid. 1996-1997: Valencia.
Honours as a coach: Spanish league championship (1995)
Miscellaneous: Between 2000 and 2004 he was sporting director of Real Madrid, He is currently vice-president of the holding company Grupo Inmark and director of the Real Madrid School of University Studies. Valdana has worked as a commentator for various media outlets and to date has written five books: Suenos de futbol ["Dreams of Football"], Cuentos de futbol ["Football Short Stories"], Cuentos de futbol II ["Football Short Stories II"], Los cuadernos de Valdano ["Valdano's Notebooks"] and El miedo escenico y otras hierbas ["Stage Fright and Suchlike"].
“You cannot bore the viewer”
Jorge Valdano has been highly successful as a footballer, coach and sporting director. He is also highly regarded as a journalist and the author of several books. In this interview, the 1986 world champion talks about the past, the present and the future of world football.
FIFA magazine: For you, Jorge Valdano, more than anyone, I suppose football is a fairytale rather than a cock-and-bull story …
Jorge Valdano: It’s an excuse that we have found to be a bit happier. We are talking about a game that also has an element of drama, but the main thing is that it helps us escape from reality.
Of all the facets to your character -footballer, coach, director, businessman, writer, analyst-with which do you identify most strongly?
Valdano: Footballer. That’s where I found my vocation. Ever since I became capable of thought I have never had any doubt that I would become a footballer and I put all my effort into it. Nothing has ever appealed to me or fascinated me more. To then make football my profession was a very great privilege. I am also grateful to football for many other things. It brought me into contact with the world, people from other fields, singers, writers, people who are much admired … Little by little I became a sort of conduit between football and other fields. But it originated in the joy of playing.
Have you ever feared that you would fail in any field?
Valdano: In 30 years in football, you have time to do well, really well, badly and really badly. You succeed and fail with relative frequency. I “was not the sort of player who was born and died in the Argentinian national team or Real Madrid. I played in the second division for four years and I know what low-quality football is. I know the rules perfectly. Failure, when applied to football, seems a disproportionate term to use.
In the beginning there was a ball. If it could speak, whom would it accuse of mistreatment?
Valdano: Those who corrupt the game. I went to Argentina recently and came back with a book called La historia negra del futbol argentine) ["The Black History of Argentinian Football"]. Although nostalgia can play tricks on you and make you think that everything used to be perfect, you realise that there has been corruption from 1920 up to the present day, episodes that have sullied football. It happens in every country and it is terrible because it threatens a fundamental issue, the credibility of the competition. Now that football has become an essential part of the entertainment industry, there are situations which are particularly hateful, for example the trafficking of child footballers. Situations of this kind must be brought under control because otherwise football will end up creating marginalisation.
What about those who physically abuse the ball? On the pitch, I mean.
Valdano: We are declining in terms of technique. From a very young age players are selected in accordance with their size rather than their talent. When I joined Real Madrid as sporting director I discovered that of the 400 players in the academy, 70% were born in January and only one in December for the simple reason that the competition is played over a calendar year. At that age twelve months is a long time and those born in January were of course much bigger than those who were born in December. This shows to what extent we have cotrupted the selection process. If a player has seventy or eighty times more chance of becoming a footballer if he is born in January rather than December, then something is seriously wrong.
To paraphrase the words of the legendary Argentinian coach Cesar Luis Menotti, does football tend towards the left or the right?
Valdano: Towards the right, clearly towards the right, towards conservatism so to speak. In the World Cup in Germany almost all the teams were very concerned about not conceding goals. The teams only go for goal when they have to. They only change the way they play when they are losing a match. Or sometimes there are matches that give the impression that there is a tacit agreement between the sides. Teams with six defenders against one attacker from the opposing team draw 0-0 and say, “That was because we defend well.” I say “What do you mean defend well? It’s because the attack was bad.”
What will footballers be like in 2050? Will they be connected to the internet?
Valdano: Possibly. And to the bench as well. We are heading towards increasingly collective and less individual expression. More controlled and less free. I hope that we don’t go too far with all this and that there will continue to be life in football because that’s the problem with control, it kills life.
Bullfighters say that it is worse to be gored by hunger. Is Africa the future of football?
Valdano: Africa and South America. It’s a mixture because when a player has a lot of talent, the learning process is completed in Europe. Players used to come over from Africa or South America at the age of 26 or 27. Some even had rickets. Nowadays that’s impossible because if at 16 you have a lot of quality or even at 13 in the case of Messi, you move to Europe. This mixture helps the player to improve because bringing two cultures together is always enriching.
A group of Palestinians and another of Israelis are able to play a game of football without any problems. Is that the measure of this sport’s greatness?
Valdano: Yes. It’s a meeting point. I am sure, for example, that the Spanish league, the one I am the most familiar with, has done more for democratic Spain than the politics of the last 30 years. The language of sport and football in particular is a very important language of integration.
Are the footballers of today more appreciated for the aftershave or car that they are able to sell than the football they carry in their boots?
Valdano: Not at all. They are more appreciated for their football. But one of the problems is that youngsters imitate secondary things more than the essentials when they are learning. They go into the first team dressing room and instead of watching how Zidane controls the ball, they look at what kind of aftershave he wears. And of course, it’s much easier to copy his aftershave than his technique.
Any self-respecting club has a president, a chief executive, a sporting director, a chief scout and the poor coach who is usually the first to be shown the door. Are we not making life difficult for coaches?
Valdano: That’s true. There is a lot of middle management and futthermore, since football is a very emotive business, the chain of command is not even respected. The president often goes over the heads of the middle management and that weakens the coach, the sporting director, the technical director … A structure that appears very sophisticated ceases to have any meaning.
When will we see a virtual referee officiate a match?
Valdano: I hope that never happens. Football is a primitive game that has a certain degree of almost savagery to it, which is why it satisfies every human’s animal side. There are other sports, like basketball, which are more modern and have incorporated technology and I think that’s fine. Then there are sports like Formula 1 that have made technology the central focus. But in football the human factor occupies a much more important place than technology, I think it is a game that rejects technology and feels more comfortable that way, even “when this leads to controversy.
What is more difficult: to control a ball, manage a team or handle a director who thinks he invented football?
Valdano: There is a complex side to everything. The thing that takes the longest is getting to grips with the ball. It’s like taming a wild animal. It’s complicated and if you don’t have any natural or genetic advantage, it’s completely impossible.
Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly said: “Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.” Do you agree?
Valdano: I once heard that football is the most important of the unimportant things. I think that better describes its place in society.
Just over two years ago you had a brush with death in a helicopter. Since then do you approach life with a different philosophy?
Valdano: Yes, I have reordered my priorities. When I was falling, I obviously thought it was the end and I realised that there is no warning. It’s a day that comes to everyone without warning. My last thought before I passed out, because there are a lot of things I don’t remember, is the great number of things that I hadn’t done and hadn’t said … Since then I’ve been urgently attending to these matters rather than other necessities that we create and which are completely artificial.
Is it an overstatement to say that the Premier League is paradise on earth for footballers?
Valdano: Let’s say that there are four teams in the Premier League that are close ro paradise. But there are also two in Spain and two in Italy … What is true is that the wealth is becoming concentrated in increasingly fewer teams and that sooner or later we will end up with a European league. There are clubs whose market is the whole world and others whose market is their city, their region or their country at the very most. And the gap is going to continue to increase until serious competition becomes impossible.
Messi, Kaka or Cristiano Ronaldo?
Valdano: Right now it’s between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Kaka is an excellent player, but I think that the other two have more of a connection with goals and results. They are capable of changing a game at any time. They still have their weaknesses because they are very young. We are talking about players who have not yet turned 24, which is when I believe that footballers come of age, but they have tremendous talent. Nature has been very generous with them.
If I name Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane in chronological order, can you order them in accordance with whatever criteria you deem appropriate?
Valdano: No, I wouldn’t dare to. I wouldn’t put Zidane in that group, even though I think he was a fascinating player. I would rank him in the same category as Platini, Beckenbauer … As for the others it is difficult to try to be accurate when you have to compare different eras. Those who were close to Di Stefano are in no doubt that he was the best player of all time. Those who played with Pele say the same thing about him. And it’s the same with those who of us who played with Maradona … Let’s say that they are incomparable and we have one problem fewer to deal with.
Have I omitted anyone from that list?
Valdano: No, I don’t think so. There have been extraordinary players like Puskas. He had two whole careers, first with Honved in Hungary, then he retired, reappeared and scored hatfuls of goals in his new career at Real Madrid. That’s highly commendable, but it’s difficult to measure. The media influences these matters and it’s impossible to create a ranking and claim it is the definitive one.
You do not subscribe to the “win first and then play well” philosophy.
Valdano: The tendency to go for results conflicts with the concept of entertainment; fear of losing is creating highly unimaginative football, as symbolised by the fact there are no longer any number 10s, the players who used to be the game’s linchpins. It seems absurd that the focus of this business is serving up increasingly poor entertainment. Sooner or later we will return to the right path and the market will return to the way it was before. Football is a television product and you can’t bore the viewer, that’s forbidden.
How do you explain the fact that passing football (Brazil and Argentina) has won seven World Cups™, the same number as the physical game played by Germans and Italians?
Valdano: They are different expressions. We cannot expect Brazil, which has beaches, heat, a racial blend, to express football in the same way as Germany, where they play football like they make cars: with efficiency, reliability and good mechanics. Technique gives you a much better chance of winning than anything else. Football, since it became a financial phenomenon, has attracted a lot of outsiders who even have a scientific basis to support certain theories. And they defend them so well from an academic standpoint that some secondary questions end up becoming of central importance. This has meant that teachers have disappeared from training programmes, to be replaced by coaches with a style that is too academic. If there is no freedom, there is no creativity.
Have you definitively said goodbye to the dugout or are you merely on a sabbatical?
Valdano: It has been a long sabbatical and I am out of the habit now. It is unlikely that I will go back into coaching. I’m not ruling it out, but I consider it improbable. I have always liked to drift in and out of football. It’s such an obsessive task that I think it is very healthy to get away from it sometimes in order to see the phenomenon from a distance and come back with a new perspective.
Spanish football should be eternally grateful to you for playing the role of Christopher Columbus and discovering the best player of the last 15 years, Raul.
Valdano: Players like Raul emerge by themselves. It is too much to claim to have discovered a footballer. What is true is that Raul was a product of necessity. We needed players and since there was no money to look for them on the market we had to speed up the development of young players. Raul was the beneficiary of all this. You have to bear in mind that Suker and Mijatovic arrived the following year. If they had arrived the previous year it might have been a lot more difficult for Raul to find a place for himself. That’s why you often end up hoping for necessities to arise so that clubs think of original solutions. Otherwise, the market solves everything and that has a dramatic effect on the youth system. Raul emerged at that time and so did Guti and Alvaro, whose career was ended by injury … It makes you think about how many players since then deserved a place at Real Madrid but didn’t get a chance.
1979. The FIFA World Youth Championship in Tokyo. It seems like yesterday but it was almost 30 years ago. What is the first memory that comes into your head?
Valdano: The first thing that comes into my head is Maradona. It was the first time that I saw him in all his glory and in an Argentina shirt, which suited him perfectly … The partnership he formed with Ramon Diaz at that tournament was unstoppable, electric. They were explosive every time they linked up and had an aesthetic efficiency that made them world champions. It is true that the 1978 World Cup opened new vistas for Argentinian football, not only because of the result but because it brought about a level of organisation in the country that had never existed before. The country will always be indebted to Menotti. But the culmination of his efforts was that team that played in Tokyo.
Who could have imagined that that short, stocky kid with fluffy hair would be England’s nightmare in Mexico seven years later.
Valdano: That’s what geniuses are like. Diego emerged very early in Argentina, when he was only 15. He was still a boy. He was a genetic miracle, he had the perfect body to play football — he was a lot stronger than people imagine — a technique close to perfection, courage to compete, a tremendous love for football and rebelliousness that is also a feature of great men. There are people who focus on Maradona’s private life when they are analysing him, but I believe that you should judge an artist on his work, not his life.
Is the second goal against the English the best in the history of football?
Valdano: It has to do with the goal and its relevance. We have probably all seen a better goal, but not at a World Cup, not in a match as highly charged as Argentina v. England. It was an extraordinary expression of individualism because it had a change of rhythm, a sense of time, improvisation … It was not premeditated, he developed it as he went along. It was a wonder of a goal, the number of ideas he used and discarded along the way. This gives us a glimpse of how a genius’ brain works when it is in action.
And the first goal?
Valdano: In Argentinian eyes it is crafty, in English eyes it is clearly unlawful goal. I was the last person to touch the ball. Diego played a kind of one-two with me, I tried to get to it and it rebounded off an English player. I ended up on the ground five metres away from the action and I have to say that I didn’t see his hand. It was physically impossible for him to get to the ball with his head, but I didn’t see him stretch out his hand. When we practised crossing or corners in training, Diego often jumped and made as if to head the ball, but hit it with his hand. It was very difficult to see. His coordination was so great that he gave the impression that his hand was part of his head.